Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Chichester's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, or, A Chilling Masterpiece

Sometimes as a theatregoer you are privileged to see a production in which everything works. The play is a masterpiece. The ensemble are spot on. The production is brilliantly judged. And the lead is giving the performance of a lifetime. Chichester's new production of Brecht's Arturo Ui is such an occasion.

Brecht's reimagining of Hitler as a small time Chicago hood taking over the grocery racket is fiendishly clever. It's often ludicrous (I don't think I quite appreciated before how potentially ludicrous the words 'cabbage' and 'cauliflower' are) but of course the ultimate effects are horrifying, and particularly as the play darkens after the inerval the audience are not spared. One other device to be mentioned is Brecht's clever use of Shakespeare – most obvious when having Ui appropriating snatches of Julius Caesar but present across the play and both serving as further mockery of the idea of taking the set up seriously (how can these gangsters be spouting lines of Shakespeare, and getting it wrong) but of course equally insisting that we do take it seriously – there is a Shakespearean tragic element to this enterprise only the culpable audience is much wider than the gangsters and politicians on stage.

As already mentioned, the supporting cast are uniformly excellent. This is a play that needs an especially versatile ensemble – it's a long way from the jazz which greets you as you take your seat to the fiery rant of the conclusion. It is worthy of note that most of the cast have to play at least two roles and they transfer between them seamlessly. Major contributions include William Gaunt's hapless Dogborough, Colin Stinton's courageous, doomed Ignatius Dullfoot, Lizzy McInnerny as his ultimately biddable wife, Joe McGann's fading Irish-American actor (whose scene with Ui provides a brief moment of hilarity in the descending darkness) and the trio of gangsters behind Ui. But everybody makes an important contribution to this stunning evening. At the centre though, is Henry Goodman's spellbinding Arturo Ui, who transforms before our eyes from the inarticulate butt of the joke in his first brief, silent appearance, to the searing, dominating dictator of the conclusion. So many little things contribute to this but I would single out two – the periodic, unsettling way that Goodman's wide staring eyes suddenly seemed to flash out at me, and his equally sudden transitions from reasonableness to vicious fury.

Equal praise is also due to the production team. Director Jonathan Church consistently crafts those moments of tension through positioning that make for great drama, ably supported by Simon Higlett's sets, Marcello Magni's movement, Tim Mitchell's lighting and Matthew Scott's music.

This production deserves to transfer but in a large venue I suspect the direct punch of feeling oneself surrounded by Ui's minions and caught in Ui's gaze will be difficult to maintain for the whole audience. Beg, borrow or otherwise acquire a ticket therefore to one of the remaining perfomances of its Minerva Theatre run. This is unmissable.

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